`Congress for Sale'

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ON a scale of 1 to 10, George Bush's ethics plan rates about a 3.7. It has some good points, but it does not confront the key ethical issue in Washington today: the power of incumbency fueled by special-interest money. It's gotten so bad (or so good, if you're already in Congress) that members of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union have more to fear from voters - are more likely to be bounced from office - than Republicans and Democrats on the Hill. Of the 408 House incumbents up for reelection last fall, nearly 99 percent were reelected.

Can it really be that only 1 or 2 percent of the challengers had the right stuff to legislate on behalf of Americans? No, it was more like ``Wright stuff'' (see accompanying editorial) that made the lopsided difference. It was the power to raise vast sums of money, much of it from those with a keen interest in legislation.

In 1988, political-action committees gave $99.7 million to House candidates. On average, incumbents got seven times as much from PACs as their challengers did. And it didn't stop after election day. Since November, the PAC machine has poured out additional millions.

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The other key money-raising issue - ``honorariums'' for speechmaking - was similarly left unchallenged in the Bush ethics package.

Mr. Bush's own ethics commission called speech money ``a camouflage for efforts by individuals or entities to gain the officials' favor,'' which is a polite way of describing bribes.

Why, for example, did members of congressional defense committees in 1987 receive more than $500,000 in honorariums from weapons contractors? Or why did much of the savings-and-loan PAC money go to Banking Committee members, the people who should have at least seen the S&L mess coming?

[Trivia question: Who said, ``I've seen the growth in honoraria by trade associations and the appearance of it has been made to look evil, so let's get rid of it.'' Answer below. No peeking.]

Bush - who made a big deal about political ethics as a candidate - says he wants to consult with Congress first before acting on PACs and honorariums. Well, that's fine. But meanwhile the special-interest money machine and the lucrative speechifying continue. And that's not so fine.

So what to do?

First, strictly limit all outside income for elected officials and ban honorariums. No need to tie this to any question about a congressional pay raise. Outside income needs dealing with on its own; no need to sweeten it with its own ``bribe.''

Second, seriously consider proposed campaign-reform legislation. A comprehensive House bill with bipartisan sponsorship would set an aggregate PAC limit and overall spending limits tied to partial public financing.

These would be good first steps in dismantling the ``Congress for Sale'' sign now posted on Capitol Hill.

[Answer to trivia question: Rep. Jim Wright.]

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